Rouhani Says Iran Will Begin Enriching Uranium at Higher Level in Days

By David D. Kirkpatrick and Farnaz Fassihi

ImagePresident Hassan Rouhani of Iran, third from right, said on Wednesday that his country would accelerate its uranium enrichment in the coming days.
President Hassan Rouhani of Iran, third from right, said on Wednesday that his country would accelerate its uranium enrichment in the coming days.CreditCreditOffice of the Iranian Presidency, via Associated Press

By David D. Kirkpatrick and Farnaz Fassihi

LONDON — Iran will begin as early as Sunday to enrich uranium “in any amount that we want,” President Hassan Rouhani said Wednesday, declaring that Tehran would exceed the levels specified under its 2015 accord with the United States and other global powers.

Mr. Rouhani’s pledge to accelerate the country’s uranium enrichment is the latest step in an escalating confrontation with the United States that is already shaking the region as Washington and Tehran face off over President Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear pact and imposition of crippling economic sanctions on Iran.

Restarting the production of highly enriched uranium could constitute a first step toward the construction of a nuclear weapon. It may be a potentially fatal blow to the 2015 deal itself, which sought to provide Iran with relief from international economic sanctions in exchange for restrictions on any efforts by Tehran to develop such a weapon.

And because it raises the possibility that Iran might seek a bomb — which Iran insists it does not want — the enrichment is also likely to reopen questions about whether the United States or Israel might take military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities to delay its success.

Tehran already increased on Monday its stockpile of low-grade enriched uranium above the cap stipulated in the accord. But Iran’s intention to enrich uranium to a higher level of purity is considered a far more significant breach of the nuclear deal, as it would bring Iran much closer to producing a nuclear weapon.

Mohammad Reza Jalaipour, a political analyst based in Tehran, likened the promised enrichment to the decision last month by the Iranian military to shoot down an American surveillance drone: a demonstration of Iran’s ability to retaliate, in this case against the economic sanctions, which Iran views as an act of war.

“They want to say that threatening us won’t work,” Mr. Jalaipour said.

Likewise, Mr. Trump took Mr. Rouhani’s statement as a threat, and hinted at retaliation.

“Be careful with the threats, Iran,” he said on Twitter Wednesday. “They can come back to bite you like nobody has been bitten before!”

Iran has long maintained that its nuclear program was for peaceful purposes, and that the more highly enriched uranium was intended for use in a reactor that produces medical isotopes.

But the United States, the European Union and several world powers including Russia and China were alarmed enough at Iran’s decades-long pursuit of the technology to build a nuclear bomb that they agreed to act in concert in 2015 to lift sweeping economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for limitations on its nuclear activity.

Mr. Trump withdrew from that deal last year, demanding that Iran agree to more stringent limits on its nuclear and conventional military activities. He has replaced that approach with a so-called maximum pressure campaign of new sanctions and threats aimed at forcing Iran to accept his conditions, culminating in May with a tightening of penalties intended to block Iranian oil sales anywhere in the world.

As Iran’s exports fell to around 300,000 barrels a day from 2.5 million, officials in Tehran have denounced the latest restrictions as “economic warfare.”

Tensions between Washington and Tehran have risen to their highest level in more than two decades, and the United States last month came within minutes of launching a missile strike against Iran in retaliation for the shooting down of an American surveillance drone. Mr. Trump called the strike off only moments before launching.

The United States and other allies have accused Iran of using naval mines to damage a total of six tankers in two attacks over the last two months around the crucial oil shipping lanes in and out of the Persian Gulf, accusations Iranian officials have denied.

The other signatories — Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia — have continued to support the deal and urged Iran to abide by it even though the United States has withdrawn. In its most significant break with the Trump administration, the European Union has even tried to throw the Iranians an economic lifeline in the form of an alternative trading mechanism to help bypass the American financial system and new American sanctions.

But that effort has largely failed.

Mr. Rouhani has said that Iran would gradually stop complying with the restrictions if the European nations failed to provide some relief from the economic pain within two months of the latest constriction of the American sanctions — a deadline that falls on Sunday.

Majid Takht-Ravanchi, Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations and a member of the team that negotiated the 2015 deal, told reporters in New York on Thursday that the restarting of uranium enrichment was meant in part as a message to the Europeans.

“If U.S. is out and Europeans are not in a position to compensate what we are losing, that means that the deal is not working,” Mr. Takht-Ravanchi said. “We have been telling friends in Europe that the deal is tarnished after U.S. withdrawal and we told them, ‘you need to fix it.’”

“We cannot continue with the way the deal has been treated,” he added.

Speaking at a cabinet meeting in Tehran, Mr. Rouhani said Wednesday that Iran would begin enriching uranium to higher levels “in any amount that we want, any amount that is required.” It would no longer heed the limits set by the deal, which was sealed with a resolution of the United Nations Security Council.

“Our advice to Europe and the United States is to go back to logic and to the negotiating table,” Mr. Rouhani said. “Go back to understanding, to respecting the law and resolutions of the U.N. Security Council. Under those conditions, all of us can abide by the nuclear deal.”

Mr. Rouhani added that Iran would also start taking steps on Sunday to restart its Arak nuclear reactor, which could eventually be used to produce plutonium and provide an alternate path to a nuclear bomb.

Under the 2015 accord, Iran had said that it removed the core of the reactor and filled it with cement. But if the United States and the other signatories do not provide the sanctions relief they had promised, Mr. Rouhani said, Iran will return the Arak reactor to “the condition that you say is dangerous and can produce plutonium.”

“We will return to that unless you take action regarding all your commitments,” he said.

After Iran exceeded the limits for low-enriched uranium, top diplomats from the European Union, Britain, France and Germany warned in a statement on Tuesday that they were “extremely concerned” and that “our commitment to the nuclear deal depends on full compliance with Iran.”

“We are urgently considering next steps” under the terms of the 2015 agreement, the Europeans said, without elaborating.

The agreement — known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or J.C.P.O.A. — included provisions for the imposition of onerous so-called snapback sanctions by a vote of the United Nations Security Council if Iran violates the restrictions on its nuclear activities.

It was not clear if any of the Western European governments would seek to invoke those provisions. A European Security Council diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity per diplomatic protocol, said Tuesday it was not under discussion.

If it were, it is not clear if Russia or China, which can veto actions by the Security Council, would go along with the measure.

Iranian officials insist that their country has not violated the agreement, which they say gives Iran the right to deviate from its terms if other parties fail to comply. “As soon as the E3,” the European signatories, “abide by their obligations, we’ll reverse,” Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on Twitter on Tuesday.

“So moving forward, Iran will comply with its commitments under the J.C.P.O.A. in exactly the same manner as the EU/E3 have — and will — comply with theirs,” he added. “Fair enough?“

David D. Kirkpatrick reported from London and Farnaz Fassihi from New York.